In October, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law a bill decreeing that Michigan’s court system will no longer automatically treat 17-year-old offenders as adults. Unless the district attorney wants to try the defendant as an adult, which it reserves the right to do, juvenile courts will handle the cases. This is a victory for proponents of criminal justice reform, and it is not the only way in which the juvenile system has improved.

In the past 20 years, the population of incarcerated juveniles has been at its highest, reaching a peak in 2000, after a long spate of heightened crime in the 1990s. However, between 2001 and 2013, the number fell more than 53 percent, from 76,000 to 35,000. In addition, 23 states and Washington D.C. have banned life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders. In the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the practice of automatically giving juvenile offenders life in prison without the possibility of parole. The court then applied that standard retroactively with the 2016 case of Montgomery v. Louisiana, which forced states to reconsider the life sentences of people who committed crimes when they were juveniles. Because of this crackdown on the practice, just three states account for two-thirds of all juvenile life sentences: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Louisiana. As of this August, 55 percent of those Michigan prisoners — almost 200 people — are still waiting for their sentences to be reviewed in accordance with Montgomery v. Louisiana.

These sentencing numbers are different from state to state because each state conducts juvenile proceeding in different ways. Some states charge people as young as 16 years old as adults, while others, like Vermont, will let non-violent offenders as old as 21 be tried as juveniles. States distinguish between juveniles and adults during criminal proceedings because young minds are different than older ones. Teenager’s brains are still developing, so their mental analysis of risk and reward is less sophisticated than an adult’s. Because young people have less mental capacity to make calculated decisions, their actions are not to be held to the same standard as adults.

Additionally, kids are more likely to conform to their surroundings than adults are, and prison can therefore shape their worldview and behavior much more extensively than it would an adult’s. This was recognized in 1889, when Chicago established the first separate detention system for youth. When young people are detained with adult offenders, they are more likely to reoffend upon release. 

Rehabilitation, the idea that the state should help criminals back into society and prepare them for their release, is one of the main theories of punishment. Treating juveniles as adults is not just ineffective, it is counterproductive to the goal of criminal justice. One way juvenile justice has changed to better accommodate this goal is through disciplinary measures that do not involve incarceration. They offer help like guidance counselors that are meant more to support the offenders than punish them. These are critical to the success of the system because they are effective in preventing young offenders from committing crimes as adults. 

Despite that effort, the system still falls short all too often. More than 4,000 juveniles are locked in adult jails and prisons, which severely endangers them: a young person goes into prison, they often become victims of heinous crimes. A juvenile incarcerated in an adult prison is five times more likely than an adult imprisoned in the same facility to be sexually assaulted in prison, as noted by Congress in 2003.

Racial disparities have also gotten worse in the juvenile justice system. Young African-Americans were detained, on average, at four times the rate of of their white counterparts in 2001. That difference increased fivefold in 2017. In Wisconsin, New Jersey, Montana, Delaware, Connecticut and Massachusetts, African-American minors are 10 times more likely than white minors to be detained. Furthermore, while the population of incarcerated juvenile offenders sharply declined during the early 2000s, it dropped much faster for white youth than it did for Black youth, which worsened the existing racial divide. This disparity reflects a structural bias within the juvenile justice system that extends to the criminal justice system at large. 

The juvenile justice system has succeeded in addressing a variety of problems that the overall criminal justice system often struggles with. It has seriously brought down its incarcerated population, and states have been passing more laws protecting the rights of minors during sentencing. That said, the atrocious racial disparity and high rate of sexual assault, especially among juveniles locked up with adults, demonstrates that the system still has large strides to make.

Joel Weiner can be reached at

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